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July 15th, 2009

New York Post chimp controversy

George Curry

The crude New York Post cartoon starring President Barack Obama as a dead stimulus bill-writing chimpanzee has been roundly and justifiably criticized as racist. And the half-hearted apologies by the editor and, later, the owner of the New York Post have been exposed for what they are – half hearted. While much has been written about longtime efforts to equate African-Americans with apes, not enough has been said about the broader motivation behind portraying Blacks as less than human.

Depicting African-Americans as animalistic was part of a larger campaign, both in Europe and the early American colonies, orchestrated to rationalize slavery. No one claiming to be human can justify enslaving another group of people and violently stripping them of their humanity. So White supremacists launched a systematic effort to portray Blacks as animals unworthy of being viewed as humans. has listed some interesting 19th Century examples of what it calls "scientific rationalism."

The site opens with the observation: "Scholars began to take a more ‘scientific’ approach in understanding the difference between blacks and whites. They placed great emphasis on environmental factors. French ‘free’ thinkers believed that every man was born equal, but their [environment] resulted in some kind of hierarchy with whites on top, blacks on bottom. According to their train of logic, a black person could become just as superior as a European if they were removed from Africa and placed into Europe. During this time, philosophers used their claim to justify slavery."

The notion that Africans needed to be taken to Europe in order to be elevated was flawed. Civilization originated in Egypt, not Rome, Greece, France or Britain. That fact is undisputed yet the idea persists to this day that Africa represented jungles while Europe was the birthplace of a supposed higher order.

George Cuvier was considered the Aristotle of his age and is credited with being the founder of geology, paleontology and comparative anatomy. In 1812, he described Africans as "the most degraded of human races, whose form approaches that of the beast and whose intelligence is nowhere great enough to arrive at regular government."

By contrast, he asserted, "The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity."

Dr. Julien-Joseph Virey, writing an essay in the Dictionary of Medical Science, said in 1819: "Among us [Whites] the forehead is pushed forward, the mouth is pulled back as if we were destined to think rather than eat; the Negro has a shortened forehead and mouth that is pushed forward as if he were made to eat instead of to think."

As the American colonies fought for independence from Britain, their leaders advanced the idea that they were special people, chosen by God, to rule over expanded territories. That idea was best expressed by "manifest destiny," a term coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 to justify imperialism. The doctrine was invoked to defend the U.S. annexation of Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, California and later Alaska, Hawaii and the Philippines.

It was in 1859 that Charles Darwin posited that humans evolved from apes, with Blacks being an inferior order.

I have written in this space and in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Abraham Lincoln, the so-called Great Liberator, believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites, saying in 1858, "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…"

The notion of White superiority was ingrained in this nation’s racially-segregated customs and laws. In what became a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Dred Scott, who was enslaved, moved with his master from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was also prohibited. After Scott’s owner, an Army surgeon, was reassigned to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom.

The case reached the Supreme Court, where it was decided that no slave descendant, free or enslaved, could ever be a U.S. citizen or had ever been a citizen and therefore had no right to sue in federal courts. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for seven of the nine justices, argued that the Founding Fathers viewed Blacks as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

That ruling, Scott v. Stanford, was the law of the land until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawing separate but equal schools. As late as the mid-1960’s, Jim Crow laws were still in effect.

Portraying African-Americans as less than human has a long, painful history. And the New York Post cartoon played into that ugly past.

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